The culture of the construction site was manmade. No women had been involved in its creation and so we had to negotiate the best we could. I said to myself I had a father and three brothers, I should be able to fit in. I’d been a tomboy as a kid and thought I knew how to hang with males of the species. Every new job, each with a new group of guys, held new challenges.
I quickly learned that my coworkers thought women were incapable of doing the physically challenging work of construction. They brought to work a stereotype of women as whiny, useless, money-grubbing weaklings who needed a man to give them worth in the world. (Most of these guys were divorced and still angry at ex-wives). They repeated to me an old saying: If this work was easy, women and children could do it. Something told me that when they repeated it to each other, the word they used was not women.
“Cunt,” whispered the ironworker tying rebar next to me as I tied pipe to it. Then he quickly moved on. After I got over the shock, here’s what I thought: “Ironworkers are a bunch of cowardly sexist dickheads.”
My coworkers told me women weren’t good partners on the job because we couldn’t be trusted to hold up our end of a 300 pound piece of floor duct. We were all afraid of heights, we didn’t know how to swing a hammer and hit anything. We were just there to get a man. Our presence on the job would cost the contractor money since it took us twice as long to complete a task. When criticized we would cry, so they had to be careful what they said to us. (Too bad that didn’t translate to not insulting us.) Their worth was predicated on our worthlessness, our lack of merit. You are only as tall as the person you are stepping on.
I went to work each day with the objective of overturning the old stereotype. I was usually the only female on the job, and very conscious that I would embody a new improved stereotype. I worked hard, but was careful not to work so hard that I’d be accused of breaking down conditions and brown-nosing the employer. I tried to work just as fast as they did, but not faster. I picked up my end of the floor duct and used lifting skills to save my back, while thinking to myself that nobody should have to lift 300 pounds of anything. I was not afraid of heights, but if I had been, I never would have admitted it. I never cried, even when I felt like it.
A worker was welcomed into the construction culture in a backhanded manner. You didn’t know whether you were being dissed or included. Race and ethnicity as well as gender were called out with jokes and put-downs. How one responded was noted. You were supposed to go along to get along.
The men could be empathetic while at the same time expressing homophobia, sexism and racism. I tried to come out as a lesbian whenever the opportunity arose because I was convinced this honesty made the job easier for me. On one job I worked with a traveler* from Arizona. We were assigned to tape connectors and boxes in the trailer while we waited for the deck to be readied for the electrical crew, so we had time to chat. He told me his wife worked as a nurse in a hospital in Oakland and the place was overrun with faggots. She was disgusted. Here was my opportunity! I admitted to being a dyke and probably noted that fags were a lot more fun to work with than his sorry ass. At that he did an about-face. He needed to make a confession too. He acknowledged that he was an alcoholic, that he was in recovery and that he was letting me in on the secret. That made us even, and we were friends from then on.
Ethnic slurs were thrown at people with what seemed like a try at love. Wetback, Chink, Dago were used inclusively, like welcome to our club, this is your identity. If I didn’t object in the beginning, my nickname would be Girl. I objected, but not to every slight. You had to pick your battles. I let them know I wasn’t keen on sexist or racist remarks. No one ever said the N word in racially-mixed company, maybe because they didn’t want to risk getting the shit beat out of them. The exception was travelers who came from sister union locals in the South, but they only used the word when conversing with whites. Talking about football, one remarked, “I never understood why anyone would want to watch a bunch of niggers running around a field.” The Northern white guys on the crew were silent after that. Maybe they were seriously considering that football was no longer a white game. Or maybe they were silent on my account and would have agreed with the cracker if I hadn’t been there. I hope it was because they were so appalled they were speechless.
The Southern travelers were a different breed—bigots who bragged about killing cops and evading taxes. All white. The story was told about one guy that he kept a length of 000 wire under the seat of his truck and had once used it on a cop’s head. One day he drug up** and asked for his check. He was on the run, they said. White trash and dangerous.
That’s the way it was, and few of us minorities were exempt. On one job I had a Jewish foreman. I knew he was Jewish when others on the job started making gas chamber and oven jokes. Jewish men—at least out Jewish men—were rare on the construction site, although I knew many Jewish women who worked in construction. This guy had been a carpenter and later got into the electrician apprenticeship. He was a skilled mechanic and a competent foreman with an upbeat attitude. He let the jokes slide off.
The job was an interior remodel of the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. Cozy and insulated, we worked on an upper floor of the high-rise, piping in the ceiling, running up and down ladders. The construction crew would assemble in the basement in the mornings and ride the service elevator up to our floor together. The hotel pastry chef, a stern Austrian, came to work at the same time and rode the elevator with us. He never spoke to us, we figured, because he thought himself better than a bunch of construction workers. An unflattering stereotype of Austrians immediately took root in my mind. Austrians equal Nazis. Our crew began to refer to him as Herr Pastry. My foreman always spoke to him. Good morning or how are you this morning. The pastry chef may have nodded but he never spoke or smiled. It became a game. The Jew would force the Nazi to acknowledge us lower class plebes (the irony was that we union workers probably made way more money than he did).
Our IBEW contract gave us a half-hour lunch break 12 to 12:30 and one ten-minute coffee break, which we took at 10 am. I usually brought a bagel with cream cheese for break. I’d be starving by 10 even after eating a huge breakfast at 7. On jobs where the ten minutes was taken literally, I found I barely had time to down the bagel, which required some chewing, and to wash it down with my thermos of tea. This job was a bit looser. Coffee break might last 15 minutes.
“It’s too short,” I whined to no one in particular while standing on a ladder with my head in the ceiling. The piece of EMT*** I’d just cut didn’t fit and I’d have to start over. “What a thing to tell a man!” came back to me from the Irish carpenter foreman whose head was the only one I could see up there. That made me smile. Irish guys—full of blarney.
“Break time,” someone yelled, and I looked down to see coffee being served in a fancy silver service with a huge plate of pastries beside it. The gift had come from the pastry chef, and for the rest of that job we had complimentary coffee and pastries at 10 am, thanks to the persistent civility of our foreman. My stereotype of Austrians crumbled. I’m still waiting for help with my prejudice against ironworkers and white Southern men.
*Travelers follow the work around the country when work at home is slow.
**To drag up is to quit the job.
***Electrical Metallic Tubing, a kind of pipe used in the electrical industry.